Tyson (Review)

James Toback's documentary is a fascinating self-portrait

Mike Tyson is a fascinating figure, tender and incisive one minute, brutal and animalistic the next. The guy is a bipolar mess of neurosis, the result of a broken home and a childhood marked by humiliation and violence. And has there ever been a voice as mismatched to the body from which it emanates than Tyson’s?

Boxing was his salvation, a calling to which he poured every ounce of energy in an effort to please his unlikely savior/mentor, veteran trainer Cuss D’Amato. By age 20, Tyson was not just the youngest heavyweight champion ever but also the “baddest man on the planet,” a ferocious, unprecedented mix of speed, power and psychological intimidation. He won fights before a punch was even thrown.

Flash forward 21 years and Tyson is broken man struggling to discover the next phase of a life he never thought would last this long. James Toback’s new documentary, Tyson, should be subtitled Mike on Mike: It’s 90 minutes of a recently interviewed Tyson speaking directly to the camera — a single-minded perspective that proves both frustrating and fascinatingly intimate. Rambling, emotional and often surprisingly articulate, Tyson ruminates on everything from his troubled childhood and meteoric rise as a boxer to his various legal troubles and general outrageous behavior.

Toback often splits the screen to give us multiple talking heads (all of them Tyson’s) in an obvious — and borderline heavy-handed — attempt to articulate his subject’s unstable, dual nature. Worse, the director periodically shows what appears to be a melancholic, philosophically searching Tyson walking along the beach at sunset as he talks about his sexual proclivities with women (“I want to ravish them completely") and other acts in the "art of skullduggery." Toback also mixes in archival footage from a variety of sources (the boxing footage of prime-era Tyson remain electrifying, as if one is witnessing a one-in-a-lifetime comet), the most curious of which is an joint interview with a young Tyson and D’Amato, whose death devastated the vulnerable teenager one year before he would win the title in 1986.

Tyson would never trust anyone again … with the possible exception of Toback — their friendship goes back more than 20 years. Tyson has appeared as an actor in two of the director’s nine previous fictional works, a highly personal collection of films — from still-potent debut Fingers (1978) to little-seen When Will I Be Loved (2004) — that are simultaneously provocative, probing and self-indulgent. The two are perfect for each other — hyper-masculine men fueled by fear and loathing.

Toback’s documentary is sure to infuriate those looking for balance (Tyson again proclaims his innocence despite being convicted of rape 1993), but the filmmaker lets Mike be Mike, a decision that yields a unique, unblinkingly candid portrait of a man in all his contradictory glory. Grade: B


Opens May 22. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.